Nearing the end of a long day on the bike. It’s already dark. Cars slosh through puddles and headlights illuminate the drizzle. Echoes of abuse from a taxi driver reverberate in my mind. Last order then home, where a hot shower and double helpings of macaroni cheese await me.
My legs push round and round automatically and the bicycle is propelled through gaps in traffic, past oblivious pedestrians. It’s like an invisible force is reeling the bike back into the heart of the city and I just have to sit and pedal.
My phone makes that familiar sound so I pull onto the pavement to stop and check it. Order from KFC, Northumberland Street. My brain immediately formulates a route as I slide my finger across the screen to accept the delivery. To the end of Clayton Road, left onto Brandling Park, through underpass, past uni library, down cycle path (avoiding students), cut through Civic Centre Gardens onto John Dobson Street, right onto Northumberland Road, which leads to Northumberland Street and the bright lights of KFC.
I collect the food, a single fried chicken meal, and swipe to say I’ve got it. The delivery address pops up: Royal Victoria Infirmary. Ha! Are you kidding me? Ordering junk food to a hospital? Oh well, at least it’s not far. Along Northumberland Street (avoiding shoppers), nip through walkway past Haymarket Metro Station, zig-zag across four lanes of traffic, and up St. Thomas Street to the hospital.
I find the main entrance and lock my bike and swipe to say I’ve arrived. Then I stand outside by the revolving door, confident the giant square rucksack with DELIVEROO emblazoned on the back will alert my customer. No-one approaches me. I double-check the address, which just says RVI. Really fucking helpful, I mutter to myself.
Cars pull up to collect people and zoom off. Ambulances come and go. Through the glass walls I can see doctors and nurses striding across the bright atrium. People doing proper jobs, not delivering fried chicken to people who shouldn’t be eating it. I can just picture the customer as well. Sallow skin, dark eyes, wheeling their IV drip through reception with a cigarette between middle and index finger, coming to collect another nail for their coffin. And I’m delivering it to them.
Like I said, it’s been a long day.
With no-one interested in my cargo, I pull out my phone again and select the option to call the customer. Six rings and a woman answers. Hello?
Hi, it’s Deliveroo, I’ve got your order outside…
Oh right, yeah, could you bring it up to us please? We’re on Ward 4, room twenty-six.
Right, I say through gritted teeth. Will do. I hang up without saying anything else.
So you want me to bring your food up to you? After I’ve been standing around like a lemon for five minutes? Well why didn’t you put the ward number on the bloody delivery address then?
I grab my bag and stomp into the atrium. My shoes squeak on the shiny floor and leave dirty footprints. Hi, where’s Ward 4 please? The receptionist gives me directions and I follow where he’s pointing. Lift up to fourth floor and march through the maze of arrows and numbers and double doors. I feel conspicuous with my hi vis jacket and massive Deliveroo bag. Staff give me puzzled looks as they walk past. One asks if I’m lost. I debate telling her how lost I truly feel right now, traipsing around a hospital with a bag full of fried chicken.
I arrive at Ward 4 and take a squeeze of anti-bacterial gel and study the signs around the door as I rub my hands together and feel the gel melt away. Ward 4: Paediatric Oncology inpatient ward and Teenage Cancer Unit. Shit. My hands stop massaging the non-existent gel and I stand there awkwardly. I have no idea what the first bit means but Teenage Cancer Unit is clear enough. All those vicious preconceptions about my customer and it turns out I’m bringing food to a kid with cancer.
Sheepishly, I go through the door and ask the woman behind the desk where room twenty-six is. The question of who I am or what I’m doing here seems to flit across her face but she doesn’t bother asking. I’m probably not the first Deliveroo rider to visit this ward. She just points down the corridor. Fifth door on the right, she says. Thanks, I reply quietly.
I walk down the corridor like I’m at a funeral. Any trace of outrage has evaporated. Confronted by the sign stating Teenage Cancer Unit and seeing busy nurses and frail patients and smelling that hospital smell - it makes sense. Of course people order delicious, greasy food when they’re stuck in here.
The door to room twenty-six is ajar and I peer inside. Mother, grandmother, nurse, all sat around the first bed. A boy is sitting up on the bed, smiling at me. No hair, tubes in his nose, hospital gown. He’s giving me a proper smile. I look away as I knock and walk in. Five other beds are hidden by curtains and a dark window runs along the back wall. It smells like cleaning products. I look back at the boy and smile weakly, feeling shy. There’s something intimidating about a child dealing with adversity in the way only a child can. I take my rucksack off and pull out the meal and hand it to the mother. The three women thank me warmly and close the door as I back out. Through the strip of glass I see them turn back to the boy. His face is beaming and he’s clapping gently.
I leave the hospital quickly and cycle home. I feel slightly numb, like the joy on the boy’s face is being cancelled out by my cruel assumptions. Home and laptop out. I google Paediatric Oncology. The first link tells me: a paediatric oncologist is a doctor with specialist expertise in managing children with cancer. At a guess, the boy I just delivered fried chicken to was about five years old. I start to cry.